Interview: Lessons in Kindness from Jenn Colella, New Mom and Star of Broadway’s Suffs

Colella appears in Shaina Taub’s new musical at the Music Box Theatre.

It’s not so often that you meet a successful person who is still so grounded and generous with her wisdom as Jenn Colella. After spending several years in the shoes of Captain Beverley Bass in Come From Away, Colella is currently playing another figure who took on the glass ceiling, early Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in Shaina Taub’s musical Suffs.

At the same time, Colella has added a new role to her book, mom to an 11-week-old baby girl. And if you run into them in the street, give them a smile. You’re guaranteed to get one back.

14 Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt
Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt in the Broadway production of Shaina Taub’s Suffs at the Music Box Theatre
(© Joan Marcus)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do you balance being a new mother of a baby with starring in a new Broadway musical? I mean, that’s hard. 
It’s hard because I feel like my heart is in two places. My wife has been the hero in this particular relationship. My daughter is only 11 weeks old, so she’s brand new. Our first rehearsal for Suffs on Broadway was when my daughter was five days old. I’ve been a part of the show for seven years, so my wife was like, go do this thing and I will take care of the baby while we get through opening and all the awards. I have a feeling, come the end of May, she’s gonna be like “here!” [Laughs]

The work that you’re doing right now is going to be important to your daughter one day, too.
I’m so glad you said that because that’s exactly how I feel. The only thing that could take me away from her right now, even for a moment, is to be a part of something like this, celebrating women’s voices, so that when she can speak, she’ll know that I was working to amplify her voice as well. We want to raise an independent woman who believes she can take care of herself and doesn’t need someone else to do it.  

Carrie Catt is a person in an establishment role who is challenged by a younger person who says, “You’re not being radical enough.” How does it feel representing the more senior figure in this position?
It’s fascinating to have been a part of this for seven years. When I first started, I was like, “wait, I’m representing the old guard?” And now with all the new kids in this, I’m honored. Nikki James and I both have dressing rooms, just us, on this hallway and we’re like, “how did this happen?”

It’s beautiful. There’s this passing of the torch, an understanding of what it means to light the way, but also trying to open our hearts to this new way of thinking, speaking, being in action, and what it means to take action. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to connect in the way that I have over the years with this character and the way she feels. But I really do.

 The other day I saw something that reminded me that it’s only been 50 years since women were allowed to have credit cards. That’s not so long ago. 
Yes, the vibration of what we’re talking about 100 years ago is still resonating. There are lines in the show and people are looking at each other like, “wait a minute, we’re still fighting for equality as women?” Women’s rights, right now, are very much under attack. So even if you’re not an activist, just exercising your right to vote is the best form of activism because that’s what these women fought so hard for. This is your actual voice that you can use to make change, and they did this before there was social media and before there were phones. These women did this by a telegram. They literally changed the Constitution! 

Shaina has done such a good job of illuminating these things without making it feel preachy. She’s sharing something with us that we already know is a part of history but doing it in a way that we care about the people that are involved in the fight itself. People fighting for the same thing, but struggling with it, is also very human and something we can understand.   

Do you draw any connections between your Suffs character and Captain Bass in Come From Away 
They’re two women who broke glass ceilings and were not respected in the way that they should as leaders and still persevered. They made change happen because they followed what they believed was right in their heart. So, of course, I’ve taken a lot of Captain Bass with me on this journey. She’s definitely infused in the spirit of Carrie Catt.

You’ve made a commitment to lead your life with kindness. How challenging is it to be that person in this world?
First of all, it’s a practice. It’s not something that I just decided and then boom, it’s there. I have to practice it every day and some days are easier than others. If I stop and look into the eyes of the person who said hello to me and say, “how are you today?” Very often they are disarmed by that because they can tell I’m genuinely asking, and they’ll tell me the truth. It fuels me to smile at people without wanting to get a smile back, just offering kindness.

I think a lot of artists get into the habit of thinking, “If I’m not hard on myself, then how am I going to make it in this cutthroat business?” And I just don’t believe in that. It’s hard enough. There’s plenty of criticism. You’re going to get noise for most of your career. If we can rewire our brains into being more gentle and kind with ourselves, I think it would change how we interact as a species.

What would you tell young Jenn if she could see you right now?
Where you are is exactly where you’re supposed to be. You don’t have to emulate anyone else. What you’re bringing to the table where you are right now is exactly right. You are enough. 

9 Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt and Shaina Taub as Alice Paul
Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt and Shaina Taub as Alice Paul in Suffs on Broadway
(© Joan Marcus)

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